Wednesday, 31 March 2010

BEET SALAD


The crimson root Beta vulgaris ... Today, Holy Wednesday, has been very busy. A day of house cleaning and planning for the big family meal this Easter Sunday. For dinner, we had Lenten fair: beet salad, and zucchini. Plus good homemade bread. The beets were peeled, halved and cooked in the oven. This was much simpler than boiling them, which is what traditional beet salad recipes call for. They tasted great! An additional bonus was the lovely odour coming from the kitchen as the beets were baking.

Ingredients:

3 beets with stems and leaves included
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil
vinegar
lemon juice
lemon rind
some parsley
some fresh oregano
some walnuts, roasted

Directions:
  • Wash and peel the beets. Cut the stems and leaves in half, and also cut the beets in half.
  • Choose a baking dish with a cover, and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Add the beets and the garlic, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with olive oil, cover and bake for an hour until beets are soft.
  • Take them out of the oven and let them cool. Cut them into slices.
  • Place the beets in a serving bowl, stems and leaves included. Season again with some salt and pepper, add the lemon juice, lemon rind, parsley, oregano, and just the right amount of olive oil and vinegar.
  • Top with walnuts, serve and enjoy. This salad can be eaten lukewarm or cold. 

Thursday, 25 March 2010

SKORDALIA/ SKORTHALIA (Greek Potato - Garlic Sauce)


The Greek sauce that's named skordalia (from the word skordo, σκόρδο, meaning garlic) is a thick sauce somewhat similar to aioli. It's made with garlic, olive oil and some type of bulking agent such as potatoes, walnuts, almonds or bread. The bulking ingredients vary by locality, but the garlic itself is always present.
Skordalia is a favourite accompaniment to salt cod (bakaliaros), and other types of fish. It's also served with fried or boiled vegetables. It's tantalizing and delicious, but beware: the amount of garlic used is plentiful, so don't eat skordalia if you're planning a romantic tête-à-tête after dinner. My maternal grandmother, as I have often been told, always made her skordalia by using walnuts to bulk it up. However, the most popular version is made with potatoes. I make my potato skordalia by using lemon plus two types of vinegar: white balsamic and white wine. This acidic combination lends a fruity delectable taste that elevates the humble skordalia to a whole other level. Here's the recipe:

 Ingredients:
  •  3 potatoes (should add up to little more than a pound)
  •  2 cloves garlic, chopped 
  •  1/2 cup olive oil
  •  juice of one lemon
  •  2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
  •  ground black pepper to taste
  • salt is optional
  • Parsley, well chopped, to sprinkle on top
  • One scallion sliced very thinly to sprinkle on top (optional)

Directions:

  • Peel the potatoes cut them into pieces and place them in a saucepan. Cover them with water, and boil them until soft. Drain but reserve some of the water to use if necessary.
  •  Mash the potatoes by hand. 
  • In a food processor puree the garlic. 
  • FLASHBACK: today most everyone uses a food processor, but I remember as a child watching an aunt prepare garlic for skordalia by mashing it up with a pestle in her beautiful marble mortar. I was completely fascinated and I wanted that mortar and pestle for my toy box! She didn't let me play with it even though she was otherwise very kind ... Well, flashbacks are fun! 
  • To the processor, add the oil, vinegar and lemon juice. Mix it well. 
  • Slowly pour the garlic/oil mixture onto the potatoes, mixing all the while. 
  • The skordalia should be thick and soft. If it is too lumpy add some of the reserved water and mix to soften it.
  • Season with pepper as needed. 
  • Skordalia should have a garlicky taste. Use as much garlic as you are comfortable using. No more and no less. 

PAN SEARED HALIBUT WITH SKORDALIA



March 25 is an important day in Greece, a double holiday with national plus religious significance. Orthodox Christians celebrate the Annunciation of the Theotokos, the day that the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Theotokos that she was to bear a child, and wouldn't you know it, Christ's birth followed exactly nine months later, on December 25! Gabriel knew what he was talking about, right? I've never heard of a gynaecologist who could predict a delivery day with such certainty ... 


Okay, I am back. Suddenly, I was hit by lightning, and I have no idea why or how because I am indoors. How did lightning get to me? I am mostly fine, I had to reboot my computer, and my hair is a bit singed and smoking but I'm not too concerned because I'll use the smoke and stuff as a fashion statement.  


Anyway, in the year 1821, on Annunciation Day, a prominent bishop of the Peloponnese named Germanos, proclaimed the beginning of the struggle for Greek independence. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Greece had been stifling under the occupation of the Ottoman empire. A revolution began in 1821 and in 1832 Greece was recognized as an independent nation! 



Bishop Germanos is depicted in the centre. The painting is "Epanastasis" (Revolution), painted by Theodoros Vryzakis. One of my favourites of his is "Farewell at Sounio," seen below.



March 25 is and has been for Greeks a day of parades and great national feeling, and also a day of religious devotion and fasting. In Greece, religion and tradition pretty much regulate what will be placed on the table for dinner. On March 25, most Greeks will eat some type of seafood accompanied by skordalia, a garlicky potato dish. Today at my house, halibut is on the menu. All of us love its firm texture and its delicately sweet flavour. In cooking halibut, I've learned not to let it dry out. This is important as the fish contains little oil of its own, and can easily become tough if overcooked.


My favourite way of preparing it is to quickly pan sear it. One can play with a lot of sauces and spices while pan searing, but for today's holiday, considering that we fast, we'll cook it plain. Then we'll serve it with a bit of skordalia and a nice tomato salad.


Ingredients:
  1. 4 halibut fillets, about 6 ounces each
  2. Salt and pepper to taste
  3. Lemon juice to taste
  4. Flour for dusting the fish
  5. 3 tablespoons olive oil
  6. 3 tablespoons butter
Directions:


  • Sprinkle the halibut with some lemon juice and season it with salt and pepper. Dust both sides with flour, then shake off the excess flour.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pan. When the oil starts to smoke faintly, add the halibut. Let it cook on medium high for three to four minutes, until the seared side has turned dark golden brown.
  • Turn the fillets over carefully, and lower the heat to medium. Cook for another four minutes or until the internal temperature of the fish reaches 120° F. Check by inserting a cooking thermometer into the thickest part of the fillet.
  • Add the butter to the pan and swirl. Don't let it burn. Using a spoon baste the fish with the butter, cooking for another minute.
  • Transfer the halibut to a serving platter and let it rest for a couple of minutes before serving.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

MASTIC, MASTIC GUM, MASTIC FLAVORING & MASTIC TREE TEARS FROM CHIOS


Mastic is harvested from the sap of the broad leaf evergreen mastic tree. This tree is endemic to the Greek island of Chios (birthplace of the poet Homer), and it has been cultivated there in large numbers since antiquity. Its crop is valued internationally, and for that reason it has made the island of Chios famous. Today mastic is used in folk medicine preparations and more importantly as a flavoring in food and spirits. It is also an ingredient in Chrism or Myrrh, the consecrated oil used by the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican churches. To harvest mastic, incisions are made in the bark of the trunk and branches of the tree.
From these incisions a resin begins to appear. It is pea sized, globular and translucent, and it is commonly referred to as “tears.” As the resin begins to fall to the ground the tree is said to be “weeping.”
They really do look like tears!
The mastic tears are collected, cleaned and dried. Mastic for flavoring is sold in air tight containers that contain small pieces of tears. Before using them in recipes the tears must be pulverized into powder form. To make powdered mastic, use a mortar and pestle to pound the resin. It is easier to smash it by adding a little sugar or salt. The flavor is slightly sweet and reminiscent of cedar. Historically one of the more popular uses of mastic was to chew it in order to freshen the breath. Thus it was given its name mastic, which derives from a Greek verb meaning to chew. The English verb masticate derives from the same root, and the Greek word for chewing gum, is “mastiha.”
As a young child growing up in Greece, I remember that I could buy a small package of about 3 pieces of "mastiha from Chios" for the cost of half a drachma, which back then amounted to less than a penny U.S. I could afford it better than the tiny box of minty chicklets which cost one whole drachma. So I would chew my gum from Chios, carefully at first because its texture was hard at the outset. Soon it would take on a gummy consistency and it would release its distinct freshening flavor which would last for a good half hour. Then it would be time to discard it and buy some more. Alas, I gave up chewing it when I discovered bubble gum!

Mastic gum flavoring can be purchased in specialty Greek or Middle Eastern stores.

MAHLEPI

What wonderful blossoms! They have the aroma of mahlepi, sweetly fragrant. This picture of the St Lucie Cherry tree, which yields mahlepi, comes from a Wikipedia article about mahlepi.

Mahlepi has been widely used throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, to flavor breads, biscuits and less sweet cakes and pastries. In Greece mahlepi is used for holiday desserts such as tsoureki and other egg based yeast cakes. It's an unusual and fragrant spice made from the stones of the black cherry tree Prunus mahaleb, which grows throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The cherry stones are cracked and the kernels are extracted, dried, and sold as mahlepi. Before using, the kernels must be ground to a powder either with a mortar and pestle or with a coffee grinder. The flavor of mahlepi is a combination of almond and cherry, and it gives a sweet nutty tone to the desserts it flavors. It can be found in specialty Greek or Middle Eastern stores where it is available both whole or ground. However, as it quickly deteriorates once ground, it is preferable to purchase whole and grind the kernels when needed. Store it in airtight containers. Tip: for a subtle note add one teaspoon of ground mahlepi to pastry for fresh fruit flans. Try adding a bit of mahlepi to rice pudding.


TSOUREKI or GREEK EASTER BREAD


This tsoureki bread will take about eight hours to prepare, including the six hours needed to let the dough rise. The recipe yields one large loaf or two medium ones. I prefer to go with the two medium option. You can whip up this bread at Easter or at any time of the year. Give it a try. It's not difficult to make at all. You just need a free afternoon. The recipe makes a very fragrant and tasty tsoureki. I guarantee that you will be overjoyed with the way it tastes! Plus, there is no kneading by hand, as is the traditional way. Here, the stand mixer takes over this job. 
There are lots of recipes for tsoureki out there ...  This one makes a brioche tasting type of dough, but it's a really fragrant brioche we're talking about!
Other than for Easter, when tsoureki is usually served with coffee at the end of the meal, this bread can be eaten year round as a snack or for breakfast. Try it toasted with some orange marmalade on top.



Ingredients:

2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
2 tablespoons plus 5 cups bread flour, plus more flour as needed for the dusting of your work area.
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons plus 1½ cups sugar
4 eggs plus one egg white
2/3 cup milk, lukewarm
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon mahlepi seeds see note
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
rind from 2 lemons 
butter or vegetable oil (not olive oil) for greasing a bowl
parchment paper for the pans
Sliced almonds to be used for topping
1 egg yolk, beaten and mixed with 2 tablespoons milk to make an egg wash for topping


Directions:

  • Grind up the mahlepi seeds.
  • Reserve the 2 tablespoons flour.
  • Sift the 5 cups of flour with the mahlepi and salt. 
  • In a medium-sized bowl mix the yeast with the warm water. 
  • Add the reserved 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons sugar. 
  • Stir, then let stand in a warm place until the mixture bubbles and foams and begins to rise, about 15 minutes. 
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer and using the paddle attachment, beat the 4 eggs and the egg white. 
  • Add the 1½ cup sugar.
  • Add the milk.
  • Add the melted butter. 
  • Now you are ready to beat well on low speed.  
  • Stir in the yeast mixture.
  • Add the vanilla and lemon rind.
  • Keep beating on low speed until incorporated. 
  • From now on, you will need to use the dough hook with your electric mixer, so go ahead and change to it.  
  • Add the flour, one cup at a time, beating well on low speed after each addition.  Keep scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. 
  • Gradually a dough will begin to develop which will be sticky. 
  • Keep beating on low, adding small portions of your flour just until the dough stops clinging to the sides of the bowl. 
  • When the mixing is finished the dough should be soft and really pliable. Not sticky, not hard. Remove it to a floured surface.  
  • If you can pull the dough easily the right consistency has been achieved. The dough is not sticky, and not hard. If too much flour is added the dough will be hard. If not enough flour is added, the dough will be sticky. 
  • Form the dough into a round shape.
  • Place the dough into a large bowl that has been greased. 
  • Cover the bowl (not the dough; cover the top of the bowl) with a piece of plastic wrap and one or two or three clean towels. Leave in a warm place free of drafts. 
  • Let the dough rise until it has almost doubled in bulk, about 3 to 4 hours. Punch it down and turn it over in the bowl. Cover it again with the plastic wrap and the towels. Let it rise again until it has almost doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
  • Yeast is the ingredient which makes tsoureki (or any type of bread) rise, and as yeast is a live thing it is sensitive. Outdoor conditions such as humidity, heat, or cold influence the manner in which yeast behaves. Tsoureki is more temperamental than regular bread dough because tsoureki contains heavier ingredients such as eggs and butter. If it's cold outside, it might not rise as required. If its too hot, the dough could be sticky and require more flour. If it's humid.... well you get the picture. Just do your best and keep in mind that practice makes perfect.  A friend purchased an electric blanket which is reserved only for tsoureki duty. She covers her dough with this electric blanket so that it can rise at an optimal temperature. She reports that all her tsoureki troubles are now over and her dough rises beautifully. Perhaps I should follow her example and buy an electric blanket ...  We'll see ... 
  • This recipe, even though it requires patience during the rising, makes a very fragrant and tasty tsoureki. I guarantee that you will be overjoyed with the way this Easter bread tastes.
  • Once the dough has risen to double its size, flour your work area and prepare to roll it out. Separate the dough into 2 even sections. Take each section, cut it into 3 pieces, and roll each piece into a rope about 14 to 15 inches each.
  • Braid the ropes as though you are braiding long hair. Don't braid too tightly so that the tsoureki can bake evenly.
  • At this point preheat the oven to 350° F. You will want a really hot oven. 
  • Place each braid on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.  
  • Using a pastry brush, gently apply the egg wash and sprinkle with the almonds. Let rise about an hour until it has doubled in bulk. 
  • Bake 30 minutes until the tsoureki is golden in colour. Keep an eye on the oven because baking time varies with each oven. 
  • Let the Easter bread cool for about 20 minutes to half an hour before slicing. 
Tsoureki can be stored in the refrigerator.  It can be eaten cold, at room temperature, or even toasted. You can even freeze some to have on hand later on.


Note: Information about mahlepi is found here.   

Saturday, 13 March 2010

BISCOTTI WITH PECANS AND ORANGE FLAVOR




These crunchy biscotti, flavored with orange peel, are great to have with a cup of coffee or tea. What makes these different is their size. They are smaller in size than the average biscotti, which makes them a better choice if you are counting calories.


Ingredients:


3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
rind of one large orange
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 & 1/2 cups flour



Directions:

  • Beat the oil and the sugar about 10 minutes, until they are very well mixed.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
  • Add the vanilla extract and orange rind and mix.
  • Sift the flour with the baking powder.
  • Add the flour mixture gradually, mixing well.
  • Add the pecans and icorporate into the mix.
  • Place the dough in a storage bowl and keep in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Remove fom the refrigerator and shape into three or four small logs similar in size.
  • Place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake in a preheated 300° F oven for about 25-30 minutes. The biscotti should come out soft and light in color.


  • Allow to cool for about one hour
  • Transfer each log onto a cutting board and cut with a sharp knife into 1/2 inch diagonal slices.



  • Carefully arange the sliced biscotti on baking sheets.
  • Bake at 300° F for another 20 minutes or until the biscotti are golden in color.

  • Allow to cool and store in cookie tins.